Thursday, July 23, 2009

Writing and Reading as an Imaginative Act

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer. Tim O’Brien

I have a simple criterion for fiction; it should delight. As a participant in innumerable writing groups, much of what I’ve read falls short of that standard. This isn’t because of the journeymen status of the writer, but of a lack of the writer’s imagination in the story. In the absence of the imagination the reader is confronted with mere words on the page. What can catapult reading from the act of “running eyes over words” to the experience of a “seamless dream” is imagination.

In our current “based-on-a-true-story” preference we evaluate our stories by their adherence to the facts. We frequently read critiques of such pieces singling out a lack of fidelity to “reality” as the damning dismissal of the piece in question. We confuse facts with truth, and in doing so diminish our expectations for fiction to those of mere reportage.

Tim O’ Brien’s essay Telling Tails appearing in the current Atlantic Monthly( and I urge you to follow the link. READ IT) explores imagination as the raison d’erte of a fiction writer. Good fiction is not merely a narrative, a plodding recitation of details that paint a scene in which the merely mundane events of life occur to a character. It is not a presentation of “sincerity” but, as Jim Harrison has argued, a presentation of the quality of the writer’s mind on the page, a presentation capable of engaging the reader.

O’Brien insists this does not rule out realism. Only think of the widely read Hemingway story Hills Like White Elephants and you can see O’Brien’s point. All of the oft touted bromides of writing groups – the telling detail, verisimilitude—have their place in fiction, but they are not enough. As David Byrne of the Talking Heads so aptly put it:

facts all come with points of view/facts don’t do what I want them to.

And what I yearn for in fiction is that dream wherein I'm transported, and in the act of being so moved, am also transformed.


anno said...

Interesting. I think we want more than verisimilitude from a simple photograph; that perspective/ ambition/ dream is all the more necessary in a story.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I loved your point about confusing facts with truth.

I think that's also the role of a fiction writer - to present truth as he/she sees it.